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When I'm introduced to a new place I often like to figure out the literal meaning of the characters as I find it can be a useful general vocabulary building exercise, particularly for things such as birds, trees, flowers. But often this is not possible because of seemly abstract or outdated use of a character. In particular, 相 is often used as the first character in many place names, e.g. 相武台, 相模原, 相場市 (looking this up in WWWJDIC names will also give dozens of results). What's the general story with this character being used at the start of place names? Would it generally be related to some sort of administrative centre from the olden days?

  • Do you mean 相馬市? – broccoli forest May 12 '15 at 11:47
  • Oops, yes, that's what I meant. I saw it mentioned in a news story the morning I posted the question. It actually reminded me of the other two places and prompted me to ask the question. – VeryCommonName May 12 '15 at 11:50
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The very first thing I would like to mention is that names (whether given to places or people) do not necessarily correspond to a pre-existant precise meaning or pronunciation. See for example this question and this article.

Of course, there are also occasions when a placename's reading has no connection whatsoever with the kanji used to write it, and must simply be known or memorized. These names often derive from poetic associations, nicknames, or other pseudonyms that have come to be associated with the place over time. One of the most famous examples of this is Yamato (大和), a word that refers to the earliest Japanese state and culture, and to the Japanese people as a whole, while also being used as the name for a number of places. The characters used to write it would, in other contexts, most usually be read as "Daiwa", meaning "Great Harmony" or "Great Japan".

In the case you mention, it is maybe easier to answer : both 相武台{そうぶだい} and 相模原{さがみはら} are related. I could not find 相場市 anywhere, I think it may be a mistake.

  • 相武台 name was given when the Japanese self-defence forces moved to what was at the time 座間{ざま}村{むら}, and the name was given by emperor Showa. This was apparently due to the old name of the administrator of the region, 相武国造{さがむのくにのみやつこ}.
  • Same goes for 相模原, which comes from the old 相模国{さがむのくに} that appeared when the territories of 相武国造 and 師長{しなが}国造 were fused.

However, the origin of 相武 is controversed and unclear, see the wikipedia article (section 沿革, third paragraph) for more details. To quickly recapitulate :

  • It may come from the name of predecessors : 身狭上{ムサガミ}, 佐斯上{サシガミ}
  • The main produce of the region at the time was 苧{カラムシ} and mispronounced enough, could have turned into what we know today.
  • It may be a corruption of 坂見{さかみ}, the land that can be seen from the hill (i.e. Hakone).

So the origin for your examples is already unclear, I don't think there is a definitive answer. I encourage you to thumb through the list of places starting with 相 to check if you find a common pattern.

  • This was a very informative response. Thank you. – VeryCommonName May 12 '15 at 11:51

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